A Yankee Girl Digs Through Our Trash | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A Yankee Girl Digs Through Our Trash


When Charlotte Lundemo went out for a jog recently in Fondren, she returned home with more than a sweaty T-shirt and shorts. She arrived carrying a plastic cigarette lighter for her husband, Luke—hardly a thoughtful gift, considering neither of them actually smoke.

Contrary to what ideas some may entertain, the magic Trash Fairy doesn't fly the streets of Fondren at night collecting rubbish. Charlotte, who runs the Computer Co-op in Fondren, knows well that throwing the lighter in the trash doesn't mean it will disintegrate into thin air. In fact, many of those lighters float downstream until they reach the ocean, from where they continue to follow the currents that dump them into pelagic waters. Birds like the albatross consume fish, eggs and lesser crustaceans floating there. They don't discriminate; a plastic lighter presents as tasty a morsel as any other.

One afternoon, the Lundemos' environmental concern led them to disassemble a lighter, only to find that most of its parts are, surprisingly, recyclable. Now she can't pass one on the street without toting it back home in a waist pack, in addition to the other trash she finds on her Fondren jogs. By bringing recyclable trash home, she can be sure they won't end up anywhere besides the city recycling facility.

Luke, the president of the board of directors at Rainbow Whole Foods Co-op, knows it's easier to toss a lighter onto the street than to make time to take it apart and recycle it. But for him the effort is worth the goal; he and his wife are striving to change public perceptions regarding recycling and the effort it takes—often challenging when community leadership doesn't show an overwhelming interest.

Greening Our Culture
Could the perceptions the Lundemos are working so hard to change be the only thing holding Jacksonians back from participation? Why is the rest of the country ahead of the South when it comes to the environment and sustainability? When I began to dig, I found that my assumptions about public laziness and lack of environmental sophistication where just that: notions based on stereotypes I'd been fed as a northerner.

A 2007 Harris Poll, "One-Quarter Of Americans Do Not Recycle In Their Own Home," found that the overwhelming reason one in five southerners don't recycle isn't because they don't care about the environment, or because they're too lazy to participate. Rather, the study found that most feel their options aren't as plentiful as the ones their northern neighbors enjoy, and they're often inconvenient or costly. If programs aren't available in your area, or they become a monetary burden—even if that means the fuel used to drive your trash to a drop-off site—people are more likely to pass on participation, even if they'd like to get involved. It's that simple. Or is it?

If we're going to compare Mississippi's recycling programs to some of the most successful and established programs in the country, such as in the Pacific Northwest, then we must also consider the amount of time it takes for such changes in the collective mindset to occur.

While Portland, Ore., residents may recycle, on average, 200 pounds more per person than the rest of the U.S., we can't simply plot Jackson's programs against them: "(They) have worked hard over time to instill recycling into the culture of their communities and citizens," Mark Williams, administrator of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, says.

Growing up in Portland—considered the greenest city in America—no doubt played a large role in my own eco-enculturation. My mother spoon-fed me the green mantra alongside her strained organic peas and carrots. As an adult, my standards only grew higher during stints in England, Germany and Austria where separating your household waste into four categories (glass, plastic, paper and compost) is common.

Even my time spent in the infamously progressive Madison, Wis., was above most eco-standards; my employer encouraged recycling in the workplace, and the apartment complex I lived in offered the service at no cost to its residents. If you grow up in a supportive sustainable community, recycling becomes just another part of your daily routine, fitting nicely between brushing your teeth and brewing coffee.

However, I've found that recycling isn't encouraged as much in Jackson. In the workplace, at the coffee house, in restaurants or other public venues, I witness a staggering array of Styrofoam cups, glass and plastic beverage bottles, tin cans and paper of all kinds thrown directly into the trash daily.

Of course, I possess a hypersensitivity to blatant earth-bashing, and have been known to sift through garbage cans at work for recyclable items, and tote cups and bottles home with me from the coffee house and the workplace. Some folks just shake their heads and look at me as if I must be insane. I'm OK with it; I'd rather see Mother Earth succeed than spend time caring what people think about my practices, whether conventional or not. But I've also noticed that my unconventional habits have garnered positive attention among co-workers, fellow grocery shoppers and clerks.

I've received numerous inquiries regarding the colorful nylon Chico Bags that I use for grocery shopping—most people wonder where they can buy some, and think it's a great idea.

The lack of green enculturation, in addition to the lack of support and promotion of our city-run programs, seems directly linked to the reasons Mississippi continues to see a steady increase in the amount of household wastes deposited into its landfills. If no one's encouraging you to recycle, it's easy to fall into a routine of bad habits, and even easier to forget how simple it is to reverse them.

I found in the 2007 Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Status Report that there were 400,000 tons more deposited into landfills in 2004 than in 2000—a 17 percent increase. And while people may be quick to wag their fingers and point to Hurricane Katrina debris, that excuse won't work any longer. In reality, a 7.6 percent increase in deposits occurred in 2004—a time when the state's population increased by only 2.7 percent. People are dumping more and more of their trash, much of it recyclable, every day (4.5 pounds/person/day).

Success may hinge, in part, on time. However, Luke Lundemo also believes it's going to take more effort by Jackson leaders for city recycling initiatives to grow. "We definitely fall short compared to other communities and what they've shown is possible. ... In order to reach more people and influence them, we need leadership with creativity, a vision and a personal message," he said.

The recycling center run by Rainbow Whole Foods Co-op has been going strong for more than six years. However, it's nearly at the point of reaching max capacity; employees in charge of taking care of the facility can't find enough hours in the day to keep it running clean and organized, in addition to fulfilling other responsibilities in the store.

"Right now, I don't think many residents even know how or where to begin (recycling). If the city could make it easier for them to know where to get bins, how and what materials to recycle, then maybe more residents would find city programs as convenient as ours," Luke Lundemo says.

Beth Ramsey, Rainbow's supplements manager, and stock manager Josh Toensfeldt are concerned about the general lack of organization shown by city-sponsored recycling programs, which seem to be directly affecting their own services. At least 30 percent of Rainbow's recycling center participants are non-co-op members. Toensfeldt meets individuals on a regular basis who are frustrated with what they see as the inability of the city to get the job done. Many of them are curbside participants, but say that the infrequent schedule, limited service area and recklessness of program drivers leaves them with no choice but to take their recyclables to Rainbow.

As well, Toensfeldt and other Rainbow employees are growing frustrated with the "general inattentiveness" of recycling center participants. After repeated attempts to educate patrons how to properly use the facilities (including staffing volunteers for assistance and publishing guidelines in the Rainbow Co-op newsletter), as well as permanent signage to help direct users to appropriate bins, the staff has all but given up.

"People will drive up while I'm back there, get out of their car, and set a 50-pound box of paper right next to the paper dumpster, but not take the extra effort to actually place it inside," Toensfeldt says. "The general perception is to just forget about it and let the dirty hippies take care of it."

"We want to help the public by continuing to offer our recycling programs, but we're going to have to have more cooperation and support from the government and also the community to do so," Ramsey adds. The Lundemos and other Rainbow employees hope that one day the co-op's recycling services are no longer necessary—for it will signify an era of accessibility for city-run programs.

This Old Recycled House
When Jim Kopernak and his wife, Ann Hendrick, moved into their 1924 Noah Webster Overstreet-designed home, there were no architectural salvages in Jackson. Even so, living in a house designed by one of the most renowned historic architects in Mississippi proved a great deal of inspiration for the couple: The rough-sawn heart pine beams and planks, salvaged staircase and pocket doors are all pieces that evoke the spirit and history of the Overstreet's vision. Combined with their frequent pit stops at architectural salvages throughout the U.S., their new residence served as a catalyst to research what has now become their business, and the only one of its kind in Mississippi: Old House Depot.

Kopernak's vision was for a business that would draw not only homeowners, craftsmen and historic restorationists, but also the proverbial starving artist and others looking for a bit of inspiration from salvaged architectural gems. "There's something about these places that connect people to history and bring back feelings of nostalgia,' he says.

Folks like Kopernak encourage reducing consumption and reusing materials before recycling, as re-use is a concept at the heart of the architectural salvage. Breathing new life into recovered structural building materials and ornamental elements that would have otherwise gone to the dumpster is Old House Depot's chief business mission.

"Material re-use is a major component of our work here," Kopernak says. Old House Depot now serves a number of small construction firms and individuals seeking a place other than the landfill to bring salvaged materials The trade-offs—spared disposal cost and peace of mind—are just as great for Old House Depot, which gains the inventory its clientele desires. The symbiosis benefits all parties. It's a situation from which Kopernak believes everyone benefits leading to action that's both good for us and our planet.

Patrons of Old House Depot will find more than dust among the claw-foot tubs and pedestal sinks, antique church pews, doors and window frames. They'll encounter the past, preserved in the form of craftsmanship and time-honored traditions. But more importantly, they'll also encounter the idea of sustainable living. Because whether they purchase a salvaged piece to serve as a structural element in an historic restoration, or find something that will play a purely decorative function for modern construction, both choices are inherently green.

Eco Cool
Regardless of Old House Depot's steady success since opening its doors in November 2006, the number of Jacksonians actively recycling tells a different story. Only 50,000 households (10 percent of the metro area) participate in the city's curbside program.

How, then, can we compel the remaining 447,000 Jackson Metro residents to get involved? When I prompted the former City of Jackson Solid Waste Manager Sonya Bohannon last November to supply a solution, she simply answered: "[We] are doing many things to try to get the word out about our services." Efforts included public service announcements, TV spots, reminders printed on water/electrical bills and public relations through the city's relationships with local journalists and schools, she told me.

While such efforts may be standard public-relations procedure, they don't provide incentives. Kopernak believes we need to demonstrate the problems associated with a community that chooses not to recycle in order to illustrate the reasons for it: "[T]here is no disincentive to simply throwing everything in the trash. Ultimately government has to play a major role."

As a new resident to Jackson, I've been hard pressed to find a compelling reason promoted in the media to get off my bum and recycle. It all comes down to free will, and while Bohannon pointed out that Jackson meets "national average standards" participation (20-30 percent), perhaps one should ask whether the Solid Waste Division should really stop at average. When it comes to spreading a vision, or instilling hope in a community, can one set their standards too high?

It seems that Jackson's modest eco-agenda has gone awash in the larger sea of green. In the national media, green is rife. Last fall, the team of NBC writers incorporated sustainability into their entire primetime lineup, not to mention sending the entire "Today Show" team of news anchors—literally—to the ends of the earth to bring their green message to the Today Show masses. Even ABC's Extreme Makeover Home Edition's Ty Pennington dared to go greener than he ever has before on a broadcast dubbed "Extreme Goes Green" where the cast made over the Yazzi family home using the latest eco-technology on the market.

With the green media blitz, I assumed the younger generation would be more open to green living. However, I found that across the nation the numbers tell a different story: According to Harris Poll #67, three in 10 Eco-Boomers (ages 18-30) recycle nothing at all compared to Gen X (ages 31-42) and Matures (61+) who recycle 80 percent and 81 percent, respectively. Apparently, tweens, teens and twentysomethings don't keep recycling at the top of their lists alongside texting with their iPhone or playing Wii.

But take heed, the stale image of aging hippies and Birkenstock-wearing granola types is changing fast. Numerous media outlets have formed in recent years with a mission to convert the youth from their over-use tendencies and change their outlook on what it means to be green. It's now more hip than hippie. Web sites like TreeHugger, The Lazy Environmentalist, Hip & Zen, and Ecorazzi have helped foster the "eco-conscious cool" trend. Their edgy sites with decidedly modern aesthetics allow users to learn, share and discuss the environment with other like-minded hipsters.

It doesn't end there. Those, like me, who are addicted to MySpace or Facebook, can download numerous eco-applications and subscribe to environmental groups. With "I Am Green" (Facebook), members can earn "leaves" for green acts ("I ride/walk more than I drive," or "I offset my carbon emissions"). I've even sent virtual green gifts such as organic beer to my pals in Wisconsin, and bought a virtual Toyota Prius for my best friend in Portland.

Some may find such activity to be nothing more than mindless diversion. But in all seriousness, it has the potential to spur great change. Certainly, exciting the youth enough to think twice about their wasteful habits can't be a bad thing. The current green media trend is anything but trivial; it's helping to spread a positive message to young and old in a fun and accessible way.

Where to Start
Change, of course, does not occur overnight; one of the more daunting tasks is considering where to begin at all. When you look at the big picture, it's hard to know where, or if, one's small efforts might fit in. The answer is overwhelmingly in favor of action—doing something, anything, will always be infinitely better than doing nothing at all. Because every individual who gets involved is setting a positive example for the rest of the community, especially the youth, who are watching every step we take.

In November 2007, Vernon Hartley, who has more than 17 years experience working with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, took over Bohannon's position as solid waste manager. When I spoke with him in mid-April he projected a more concerned approach.

"We may be meeting national standards, however, we will have to evolve to where recycling becomes a critical component of how we think," he said. "I can't say all that Sonya did. But I can tell you that I come from a background where I was dealing with water management and landfills, so I know first-hand the benefits of recycling and problems that arise when you don't. Landfills have been the way (Mississippi) handled waste in the past. But it's going to come to a point where we can't ignore what we're doing any longer. The cost will become too great."

Kopernak agrees with the more proactive method. "First of all, our city leadership needs to start promoting these things and talking about them, but they also need to offer some encouragement and probably even an incentive of some kind," he says.

Additionally, new buildings would benefit from being designed for ease of deconstruction and recycling once they've lost their conventional worth. The city could also benefit by bringing back a salvage yard that carries materials from newer demolition, such as the Habitat for Humanity ReStore that closed two years ago. "I think another store could really thrive here. … There should be at least one of these in every city, I think Jackson's definitely ready," Kopernak adds.

While Kopernak and his wife may return each night to a historic home renovated with reclaimed materials, many Jacksonians will not be able make the same ecologically sound claims until our municipal leaders can dig themselves out of the landfill mentality.

"I get a lot of requests from individuals to recycle materials from old home demolition in Jackson, but there's little to no interest from the city; they could not care less if you tear down an entire building and throw it in a landfill," Kopernak says. "We need to see more of a disincentive, and more interest from our leaders."

Hartley maintains: "Right now I'm trying to build a framework to expand upon. I meet with every person that walks in the door to pick up a curbside bin, and thank them for their participation and encourage them to tell their neighbors and friends to come here to sign up for the program. We're going to weekly city council and neighborhood association meetings to tell them about our services. We're getting schools involved as an educational component; we have eight right now, but I would like to see all of them get involved. We're trying our hardest to get the word out."

"People will be more willing to change if we help show them how, and make recycling easier," Lundemo says .

And the time will come in Jackson when the individual environmental activist becomes the collective; when a smoker will disassemble and recycle their lighters rather than throw them in the trash; when teens will want to be seen hanging out at the co-op and biking to school; when new homes will actually be old homes, repurposed; when the "dirty hippies" who recycle will just be people who care and do the right thing.

But that doesn't mean you should simply wait for change to happen, or for someone to do the hard work for you. In the words of Gandhi, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Start making your own contributions—one lighter, tin can or reclaimed door at a time.

Call the City of Jackson Solid Waste Department at 601-960-9913 to be placed on a waiting list for a curbside collection bin.

DIY: Urban Farming
Green Kitchen Tricks
Super Simple Foot Scrub
Coffee Quiz
A Swapping Soirée
Changing a Bike Tire
Got Organic?
Think Globally, Eat Locally

Previous Comments


I know that Rainbow takes quite a bit of stuff – glass, paper, aluminum, but I’ve been looking for a place to drop off those new incandescent lightbulbs – the low energy ones. The problem with those is the mercury content, and you just can’t throw those in with the regular glass or trash. Any ideas of a place that recycles these? Also, wanted to throw out using “Free-Cycle” – basically people post things they need, things they want to get rid of, etc. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Freecycle-JacksonMS ALSO : ) Here is a great article on how to build your own compost bin – there are several different types and instruction on all of them. Sometimes you don’t have to recycle – that left over banana peel will make great compost for next years organic garden!! http://www.co.pierce.wa.us/pc/services/home/environ/waste/recycle/compost/compostbins.htm And Cheers on the Article!! Good stuff!


I have written a story called "where were you when Cyclone Friday hit NE JX 4 April. I wrote it the moment I got my power back eight days later, but kept adding to it. I am sending it to out-of-state people who never heard anything about the monster, and to JFP, hoping you can use it somehow. I may have time to send it to another paper ; however I won't if you use it soon. I want to send it email ASAP but I have searched your sites and don't quite understand how to get your email address. I will call.


Support our reporting -- Become a JFP VIP.

The news business has changed dramatically in the past year, and we need your help more than ever to keep bringing you important stories about Jackson and the Metro. Become a JFP VIP with an annual membership or you can Sign up as a monthly supporter. Thanks for anything you can do to empower our journalism!


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

comments powered by Disqus